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UCC student will light menorah in Ashland Plaza

Evan Burns, a history student at Umpqua Community College, was done with classes and headed for his car Oct. 1, when he realized he forgot something at the Student Center, where he worked as part of student government.

That’s when the shots rang out.

Burns, 20, a native of Happy Camp, Calif., immediately holed up with others at the Student Center, “about a football field away” from Snider Center, where a shooter was ending the lives of nine people before killing himself.

“A lot of people didn’t believe it at first. We called 911,” said Burns. “Everyone was texting family and friends. A lot of people were freaking out.”

Burns organized students to lock and barricade the door with heavy steel cabinets, then, he says, “I promised myself I would never let myself be a victim.” He started looking for objects he could use as weapons, he said — and then he started praying.

“Growing up, I wasn’t taught a lot of prayers. I couldn’t speak Hebrew, but I’d taught myself the Shemah Yisrael,” which begins, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Burns says, with that, “I knew everything would be OK. ... We kept our eye on the news. We had a lot of computers and, of course, everyone had iPhones."

In the tumult, he and fellow students heard the shooter had killed everyone in the classroom. "We didn’t know how many shooters there were. We heard the number of dead was going down. Finally, we heard a knock on the door. We verified who it was, a staff member. He said the shooter had been shot but they had to make sure there wasn’t another shooter.”

Burns notes that room was probably the safest room on the campus, as it was located in the middle of the student center and had no windows. Students in the room complained of being thirsty and hungry so Burns found a cache of snacks and drinks for student events and parceled them out. Then the police came and, he says, “it was over.”

Burns will perform the annual ritual of kindling the menorah on Ashland’s Plaza at 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6. Although he grew up without much religious instruction, Burns says, in recent years he began to study in Ashland under Rabbi Avi Zwiebel of the Chabad Jewish Center of Southern Oregon, who will pass the torch of hope to start the flame.

Present at the ceremony will be state Sen. Alan Bates of Medford and Southern Oregon University President Roy Saigo. The ceremony initiates Hanukkah, which runs through Dec. 14. The ceremony is followed by live klezmer music and serving of traditional latkes, or potato pancakes. There will be singing of traditional Hanukkah songs, such as “Rock of Ages” and “The Dreidel Song,” with gifts to all children.

Lighting of the eight-branched Menorah candelabra, says Zweibel, whose congregation has moved into the old Starbucks on Siskiyou Boulevard, is about “overcoming darkness with light and adding more good to the world. I couldn’t think of someone better to light it. It’s so timely, what with Paris, Colorado Springs, San Bernardino. It gives a spiritual and positive message, and nothing can destroy it.”

His is the third synagogue in Ashland, while there are none in the rest of the Rogue Valley. However, Zweibel has been holding gatherings of 25 Jews in people’s homes in Medford and Grants Pass — and notes the valley has a large population of Jews, but 85 percent of them are not affiliated with a temple.

Zweibel doesn’t embrace the “sterile” label of “orthodox” or any labels, but prefers to call himself an “organic Jew,” meaning one who practices the original religion of thousands of years ago. He attributes the abundance of temples in Ashland to the fact that the city is diverse and tolerant.

The new Ashland temple is being used now and is open to the public. It is still being remodeled and will have a grand opening in early January.

The lighting of the menorah Sunday, says Burns, is “to me, a resanctification. It’s not only about coming together, but to light the fire in my soul, the dedication I have, the spark I have in me to be there for others, to do my best.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Evan Burns, seen here in a selfie, survived the Umpqua Community College College shooting in October. He'll light the menorah Sunday on the Ashland Plaza. Photo by Evan Burns